Transition from adventuring to... kinging

Apologies if this has already been asked, but I didn’t see an answer yet. I’m currently reading through the core book (which is a great read, btw, very flavorful) so it’s possible that my question could be addressed in a later chapter.

I’m curious how ACKS players handle the transition between low-level dungeon-raiding and higher-level domain management.

The low-level stuff is straightforward - the sort of thing we’ve all done before in RPGs. But at higher levels, it seems like it must be a very different dynamic at the table. You go from exploration and combat to monthly income checks, hijinks, and all the rest.

It almost seems as though the higher-level play would lend itself better to one-on-one scenarios rather than group-based play. There’s a lot of cool detail involved with running your domain, but how do you handle it when there are 5 players sitting around the table, waiting their turn? Does the domain stuff get dealt with in a cursory fashion, and then the players team up like superheroes and go off on an adventure? Or does the game instead really begin to revolve around the management aspects?

I guess I need to see or hear (or have described to me) an example of play at these higher levels.

As a side note, most of my gaming takes place with just me and my wife - “duet” campaigns, where I (mostly) GM but also run a PC. I can see the higher-level parts of ACKS working really well for that kind of situation.

We tended to do a lot of domain stuff between sessions via internet rather than during the session proper. If a month rolled over we might resolve the results of the handful of interesting hijinks by high-level henchmen or get domain income and more families, but for the most part we tried to keep sessions to adventuring (which, since they were still very low-conqueror level with small domains, usually meant clearing wilderness). I will say that one mistake I felt we made was in giving everyone separate / independent domains - this led to fragmentation of party cohesion, conflict of interest, and eventual dissolution of the group. Needed more unifying outside domain-level threats to keep them on the same page, or a better class mix (we were very fighter-heavy) so that they could overlap domains (ie, thieves’ guild and cleric’s temple in the fighter’s city). Instead we ended up with a land full of contentious warrior-nobles with small domains. Historical accuracy is served!

Grim Fists parts 2 and 3 seemed to do a really good job but fell apart due to illness I think - see and

Can you elaborate on how the splintering happened and manifested? I’m pretty curious.

I’ve got some ideas for encouraging party cohesion in some of my campaign settings, but fewer in others:
1. In Crimson Sun, the wizard-kings will be immediately hostile to new powers, and the PCs will have a hard fight ahead of them even together. (The most likely and favored way to enter domain play would be to knock off a wizard-king and take over the city-state, which would mean sharing one domain.)
2. In my Undermountain/Savage North campaign, I’ve got a long-term domain-level unifying plot thread thought up (converting the GDQ modules).
3. In most of the other settings, I have no idea; in my Viking setting idea, the PCs each becoming Jarls in their own right would be quite natural, and many other setting ideas are similarly loose.

I guess, in general, there’s two easy options:
A. Some existing realms are hostile to newcomers, seeking to annex or conquer them, forcing them to hang together to assert independence.
B. Especially for domains carved out of the wilderness, the wilderness takes badly to the civilization, and a nation (or nations) of ogres, goblins, orcs, giants, etc. rise up to conquer them back.

And then, of course, specific powerful evil characters or creatures rising up to threaten the PCs’ realms - not just a dragon, but an army using dragons, or a dragon at the head of a nation of beastmen, etc.

Working in domain-level antagonists into your setting is probably always a good idea: in Crimson Sun, there’s the other city-states, and if the PCs should conquer all of them and unify them into a grand nation (fat chance!), there’s the looming hint of the inhuman hordes of the western savannahs… for Faerûn, the North has Luskan and the looming threat of orcish hordes, the Dales and Cormyr and the Moonsea region have Zhentil Keep & the Zhentarim and Hillsfar, and on the southern Sword Coast the politics gets nasty with Amn, Calimshan, the Flight of Dragons is a threat pretty much everywhere, the East has Thay, etc.

I’ve been trying to find out what happened to the Grim Fist. Cameron stopped returning my emails. Do you know?

No :frowning: I was just extrapolating from his last post, which mentioned illness. I miss him, though - his writeups were downright inspiring.

I wrote a couple of blog posts about it back when the game fell apart. My two best of that era as regards this particular topic are probably and . The whole story goes something like this:

  • PCs come into conflict with thieves’ guild leaders who run the town of Opportunity, overthrow them with a lot of luck and chutzpah, and assume power. Nobody but the bard wants to deal with domain paperwork, so he gets to be the combination domain ruler and guildmaster. This set a couple of unfortunate precedents, namely that thieves’ guilds could be run by PCs of non-hijink classes, and that domains served the personal benefit of a single master rather than the combined interest of the party. Partly a problem of party composition - bard was closest class to thief in party, seemed reasonable at the time.

  • Bard slowly gains in power due to extra XP from hijinks. Some months of real life later, rest of party notices, goes “wait, these domain things might actually be worth the paperwork.” But by this time the bard is quite unwilling to give up or split his domain and its income. So the party turns elsewhere - two new one-hex domains are hewn from the wilderness at great expense in blood and adventuring time, and small towers erected therein. Failing to realize the error in personal domains, these two become the sole provinces of two other PCs, leaving three unlanded. Party composition at this point is two fighters (one landed), two wizards (one landed), bard (landed), and venturer (unlanded).

  • Landed wizard and landed fighter dissatisfied with their domains due to low incomes - they don’t realize how much of bard’s income is from thieves in town. They invest their money with the venturer, who goes a’trading down the river. All three landed characters push for hex-clearing operations in hexes adjacent to their domains; all prep time gets allocated to stocking and trade rather than plots by other local powers. Trading turns an OK profit, but it’s no thieves’ guild, and it’s being split three ways. Gap with bard fails to close.

  • Unlanded PCs get conned into the bloody business of clearing hexes for the landed, who sometimes participate personally and sometimes just send/play their henchmen. The treasure’s not great because it’s mostly beastmen and wildlife, and for 5thish level characters it’s very dangerous work. Unlanded PCs fail to stand up for themselves and at one point I have to intervene with bard to negotiate some reasonable pay for them, despite the fact that there were three competing landed PCs who should’ve been having a wage-war over them. Crap treasure for unlanded PCs and unwillingness to bargain for sensible wages means that advancement from adventuring grinds to a halt; landed PCs disconent with inefficient hex-clearing, unlanded PCs discontent with slowly-growing XP gap with landed.

  • Unlanded wizard does math, figures out bard’s secret, builds thieves’ guild in a nearby town upriver, starts rolling in gold and powerlevels to 8th by employing only Spies in his guild. Rest of party is miffed, to say the least. By this point everyone is envious of someone else and where cooperation exists at all it is grudging. The venturer hatches a plot to steal the unlanded wizard’s spygold, and the unlanded fighter considers leading mercenary cataphracts against the bard’s successor, an assassin and former henchman of the bard who ensures the populace’s loyalty via fear of the less-than-secret guild police.

  • Realizing that things are going poorly, I revive a hopefully-unifying domain-grade threat I’d put on the backburner due to hex-stocking and trade - beastman tribes unified under chaotic cultist spellcasters (your second scenario for unifying threat - domains carved out of near-wilderness, native pushback). PCs do one session of unified reconnaissance and get a sense of enemy troop strengths - significant but not overwhelming numerical advantage to the enemy. Instead of unifying, party becomes utterly demoralized and loses any remaining hope/interest. Campaign folds.

In short - a lot of things went wrong for a lot of reasons. Individual personalities and social tendencies were certainly part of it; the unlanded PCs were unlanded in part because their players were the most cooperative in the group, while the landed players were more interested in their individual benefit and pushed their own agendas successfully. Playstyle differences came into it too; the unlanded players joined in August, while the landed players had been playing since May (game died in January). The landed players had been gently competing and occasionally backstabbing since 3rd level, while the unlanded players brought a newer-school perspective into it and at one point fillibustered the game until all agreed that there would be no further overt treachery (which eventually worked out against them, since it precluded them from executing their plots of theft and rebellion). Cross-class domains (ie, non-thieves running guilds) contributed, as did party homogeneity; if they’d had a cleric or a thief when they took Opportunity, we might not have established the “one domain, one PC benefits” precedent, and could’ve gotten cooperative play closer to what the Grim Fist saw. Grim Fist was also smart in having a party treasury - the Fists divided XP at end of adventure but put gold into a common pool for later allocation to best serve the common interest, whereas we divided both at end of adventure and so encouraged the pursuit of separate individual interests instead of the common good. Henchman pay was also a subject of contention; we used “henchmen get a sixth of a share at gold division”, which caused PCs with few or no henchman to feel they were getting the short end of the stick (particularly Landed Wizard, who only ever managed to keep one henchman alive longer than one session). As party interest fragmented, it got harder to DM effectively, since I was prepping four to six things at once, and session quality went downhill as well, since at any given time only one or two players had a vested interest in what was going on (other than survival, obviously).

Basically everything that could go wrong did, short of actual violence or a TPK. Learn from my mistakes! Get your players on the same page! My folly as a DM was the strictness of my non-intervention in the resolution of disputes between players; I went a bit too hard on the “hands-off full-sandbox mode”. I had a list the length of my arm of NPCs Who Want to Kill My PCs, and never got around to any of them because I was too busy putting player motivations as Priority 0 for prep. Keep your world alive, and it will help keep your players unified. An ideal sandbox is Freedom With Consequences; remember to apply the consequences.

And now I must pack for travel; I expect to be incommunicado through mid-next-week, which is why I had to go to this degree of detail now :stuck_out_tongue:

Hi! I’m his niece, I played Vulf. I sorta answered your q in the Grim Fist thread, but I don’t know why he didn’t answer emails or say anything on the forums. Can’t read minds.

He’s been doing better, though. It’s why I came by here: kind of a walk down memory lane, and looking for things to say to encourage him to run something for me and Q =^.^=

Then I started posting and now I can’t stop? =^.^=

Thanks a lot! That is some useful advice. I’ve got a good deal of practice at running a reacting world. My first real sandbox campaign sort of “happened” on me and converted me: after every session (the game was the incredible Artesia: Adventures in the Known World), I’d go over what the PCs did and jot down a bunch of notes on what it would lead to and on what approximate timetable, then pull up the threads that were going to show up at the next session and prepped necessary stats, etc. I had to scrap a lot of stuff because of things the PCs did (a whole civil war over succession -plot got stalled and effectively scrapped when the PCs killed one of the princes at a tournament, but I hadn’t yet done any serious prep on it anyway since it wasn’t going down yet), but it made for an awesome “the PCs cause things to happen in the world” campaign.

(Completely as an aside, I think ACKS could work great for Artesia, with re-worked magic system; the setting already has obvious old-school adventure locations in it, like the dungeons of the Mad King Myrad under the capital city of Therapoli, the Vale of Barrows, and Lost Uthedmael… there’s a very strong vibe that Mark Smylie is a fan of old-school D&D and/or RuneQuest.)

What I’m trying to do in my ACKS campaigns is combine the above with old-school adventuring, and take it up to the next level (of domains and realms).

Avoiding the early fracturing is definitely something to keep in mind. I think I’ll probably institute rules about shared income to encourage joint ventures: for instance, rather than each PC needing to individually cross the Income Threshold For XP, they each get a 1/Nth share of the portion of shared profits-per-month that exceeds their threshold… or something like that.

Specifically, if the PCs take over a city-state, I could make sure to introduce the many people required to keep it running, and heavily hint that making henchmen of them - or replacing them with henchmen - would be the way to ensure every part of the city stays under control. With the addition remote, isolated satellite domains as part of the city-state realm, there’d be a need for more governors and ministers than one PC is going to have henchmen.

this looks like the second incidence of a thieves guild run as-written producing absurd profits, especially on the backs of level 4 spies. Sounds like some house rules may be in order to curb this?

I’d love to see what the community comes up with! (I’d volunteer, but I’m not familiar enough yet with the system, having only run a single season’s worth of ACKS)

Yeah, I worked on a number of things aimed at hijink issues during and after the collapse. Things I remember proposing / looking at:

  • Hijink income causes penalties to urban domain morale. This would turn kleptocracies from money machines into thief training grounds (or makes them less efficient money machines, depending on the rate at which hijink income counts against morale relative to taxes), provide incentives for domain rulers to crack down on crime, and give you an easy mechanical method to hinder enemy domains via operatives without going into too much detail.
  • Stricter enforcement of guild member morale. If you’re caught, even if you get off easy, calamity. If you level, check loyalty. If you level and you’re of 5th level or above and not a henchman, check loyalty at a penalty. Thieves who fail loyalty / morale might rat to the authorities, defect to a rival guild, go freelance, or begin plotting / forming a faction within the guild opposed to the guildleader.
  • Cap hijink income as a function of market class and hijink type. For some reason, I don’t think there’s 44kgp in reliable monthly spying blackmail hush money to be had in a class IV market of 5000 souls (yes, this happened). Possibly combine cap with domain morale penalties, such that minor domain morale penalties occur if you’re below the cap, but the penalties ramp up rapidly above the cap.
  • Magic Research-style limits on thief capabilities by level. Levels 0-4 can perform hijinks as part of an established guild, but don’t have the contacts to profit off of personal ventures. Levels 5-8 can perform personal hijinks and profit from them, since they know the trade and have a network of fences who trust them personally. Levels 9+ can profit from the hijinks of others, since their logistical networks have sufficient capacity to move large volumes of goods, and they are considered trustworthy / established enough for fences to trust their employed ruffians by proxy.
  • Full-system overhaul. If I were to do this, I’d like to follow Domains at War’s direction and change hijinks from being primarily a cash generator to being a point-problem solution / general support capability (sort of like how thief skills operate at low levels, but on domains scales and with proxy ruffians). Of the ACKS core hijinks, I feel like treasure hunting is the model - it provides a benefit conducive to making money, without having cash just fall out of the sky. Maybe it would make sense to have two ‘tiers’ of each hijink, one useful at low- or mid-levels when conducted personally, and another intended for use by hired goons at domain levels with a higher degree of abstraction. I dunno.

Between this thread, and the thread over in “Starting Cities”, it feels like the weakest area in ACKS is in the economics of cities.

I just want to say that, while I’m sorry this sequence of events seems to have led to a disappointing end to a campaign, it is entirely entertaining to read. Great write-up!